The Year of the Tiger

As my oft-faulted memory serves, my family has rarely been one to adhere to tradition.  In the era of birthday parties, I recall black forest cake, angel food cake, tiramisù, red bean cakes, crabcakes, and the eventual disappearance of sweets and cakes from the celebratory menu.  Several years ago, we stopped setting up the plastic Christmas tree–“Nobody really seemed to miss it, so why bother?” stated my mother flatly when I inquired this past holiday.  I have very few memories of New Years past–not for the reasons I have now (“What were in those capsules?  Why are we playing board games with these strangers?”), but rather because most of us fell asleep before midnight rolled around.  Throughout our times together, we have always had difficulty establishing and maintaining the more tangible aspects of holidays and celebrations.  Lord help us, we even wear white after Labor Day.

The holiday at hand is the Chinese New Year, a particular celebration wherein the Hsu family exchanges red envelopes, eats a ton of Chinese food, then falls asleep watching a movie on television (I’ve been told this is also known as a Jewish Christmas, which we apparently also celebrate).  This year, however, is my year (as it also is for anyone who was born in 1986): a year to move things toward a more Algie-oriented direction.  Happy 4708, 4707 or 4647, it’s time for a change!

While trailing my family through the festooned, smelly streets of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, I arrived at the conclusion that we should try our hand at cultural traditions.  As luck would have it, Chinese New Year is rife with tradition–beginning with the first day of the new year, traditional adherents follow a fifteen-day observance of rites including: worshipping ancestors, visiting elderly relatives, popping fireworks, sweeping, not sweeping, getting haircuts, buying new clothes, wearing, displaying and exchanging red things, and not going to work on the seventh day (unfortunately, this falls on a Sunday, so I can’t claim “cultural reasons” to play hooky this year).  So, like any good American, I have picked and chosen the traditions to follow–I cut my hair, I wore a red vest, and I hugged my grandmother.

One common tradition shared by Chinese New Year and White People New Year is the value of establishing precedents–for many Americans, this involves making resolutions like “I’m going to stop drinking,” which lasts as long as the New Year’s Day hangover does.  For many Chinese, the New Year involves abstaining from meat to demonstrate respect for living creatures, which lasts until the next day when they add sausages to their chicken-and-shrimp sticky rice.  Given the nature of this very important tradition, I thought that my family could handle, perhaps even benefit from, at least one day without factory-floor-grade meats.  Fortunately, my grandmother thought it was the quaintest idea I’d ever had, and she agreed to assist me in my sinister, vegetable-laden plan.

What follows is my grandmother’s interpretation of Buddha’s Delight, a Chinese Buddhist stew comprised of numerous vegetables (baby corn, Chinese cabbage, Napa cabbage), mushrooms (shiitake, button, oyster) black fungus, tofu (daofu bok), seitan and a number of other ingredients, depending on the variation employed.  All of the ingredients are stewed in broth for several hours; one might find it prudent to remove the seitan and tofu midway through, then return them at the end, as they might disintegrate into the stew the longer it cooks.  Rice noodles can be added to round out the dish nicely.

Seasoning also varies, but basically includes: black bean paste, soy sauce paste, a dash of sugar, and a secret dash of oyster(-flavored) sauce.  But, Algie…oyster sauce?? you shout. Shhh, reader, don’t shout! Yes, after trekking out to purchase vegetable broth for the chicken broth-only household, after insisting that I did not need some pork to enhance the flavor, my grandmother secretly added a dash of oyster sauce when I was out of the kitchen…but not out of earshot!  I overheard my mother ask, “So, what else are you going to put in there?”  “Well, a dash of white pepper, and…some oyster sauce.  Shh!” replied Grandma.  When I returned to facetiously confront her, she replied tersely, “Yeah, so?”  Indeed, Grandma, indeed…

Two key points: grandma’s cooking and baby steps.  I’m sure most of you can relate to the former point: my grandmother has been a member of our little household as long as I have been, and for every day (except Saturdays and Sundays, since everyone needs a break) of those twenty-three years, she has been making the most delicious, most comforting food I have ever tasted (contrary to how the following photos appear…somehow there were no batteries in the house, so these are phone-pics).

Perhaps it’s more of the latter characteristic than the former; but, as you know, food has a magical way of conflating and confusing the two, such that a shrimp curry is always more than a mere shrimp curry, and a dash of oyster sauce can be permissible as long as it is added by a mystical, grandma-hand.  As we prepare to dine, she explains to me, gently, “Shit, I’ve been standing for eight hours making that damned thing–I’m going to bed.”  As such, am I really going to protest a dash of oyster sauce while under the auspices of the Great Grandma Hsu and her Kitchen Kingdom (Kitch-dom?)?  No, and Lord save the fool who tries…

Interestingly, after years of pestering, my family seems to have finally gotten on the organic train, though I do worry that they were confused and really meant to get on the SEPTA.  Nevertheless, what a trip it was to hear Grandma and Mother discussing the advantages of free-range chickens.  “Yeah, those hormones and stuff sound horrible,” stated Grandma.  Baby steps! “We should eat less chicken,” she continued, “and eat more fish and shrimp.”  Baby steps…

Happy New Year!  Rowr.

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~ by algernon on February 15, 2010.

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